Game 2 offers UAB a shot at another first
The 2018 football season was a year of firsts for the UAB Football program. The biggest:
First conference championship and first bowl victory.
So far 2019 has been a year of finding special ways to commemorate those firsts.
First painting? Check. Steve Skipper's work of art commemorating the 2018 season was unveiled July 28 at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
First banners? Check. The decorations signifying the C-USA and Boca Raton Bowl titles were revealed last Thursday night at Legion Field before a gut-check victory over Alabama State.
Bill Clark and the Blazers have an opportunity Saturday to make history on the field for the first time in 2019. Win at post-Terry Bowden Akron, and they'll record the first 2-0 start in the program's Football Bowl Subdivision existence.
It would be more one small step than one giant leap for Blazer kind, but when your FBS history dates only to 1996, every first counts.
How is it possible that UAB has played 21 seasons of big-boy football without winning the first two games of the year even once?
Two words: Guarantee games - where you're guaranteed to get paid and you're usually guaranteed to lose.
The Blazers at times have played two of those games in the same year against Power 5 opponents to bolster the budget, and they've often faced one very early in the schedule. Consider the competition UAB has played in either the first or second game of the season:
Auburn (1996), Nebraska (1998), Virginia Tech (1999), Florida State (2001, 2004 and 2007), Florida (2002 and 2011), Tennessee (2005), Oklahoma (2006), Michigan State (2007), South Carolina (2012), LSU (2013) and Mississippi State (2014).
Every one of those games was a road game. Eleven of those teams were ranked, seven of them in the top 10, and the Blazers put a serious scare in a couple of them. To open the 2005 season, Watson Brown and his Blazers came up a touchdown shy at No. 3 Tennessee. To open the 2006 season, they fell seven points short at No. 10 Oklahoma.
Only once in the program's FBS history has UAB opened a season with two home games. In 2009, Neil Callaway and the Blazers beat Rice in the opener, then came up just short in the second game against SMU.
Jim Hilyer, UAB's first head coach, authored the only 2-0 start in program history. His 1992 team, playing the school's second season in Division III, actually opened with three straight victories. Those were good times and important building blocks, but they feel like ancient history now.
Even as Clark has elevated the program and adjusted the schedule to include just one money game per year - often later in the season; this year Nov. 2 at Tennessee - he has yet to get through the opening two games unscathed. It's been a pattern in each of his three seasons as head coach. Win the non-conference opener at home, then lose a non-conference road game.
That Game Two loss happened at Mississippi State in 2014, at Ball State in 2017 and at Coastal Carolina last year.
In each case, it was a temporary setback on the road to a successful season. The 2014 and 2017 teams won three of their next four games. The 2018 team reeled off eight straight wins after its first loss.
So a defeat Saturday at Akron won't break the season any more than a win will make it, but it is another opportunity to do something positive this program has never done.
Clark and company have made a habit of it.